Until they all fall down

“The post-1972 take-off of financialization coincided with advances in computing capacity and the discovery of new mathematical techniques for valuing options and constructing derivatives. To begin with, these techniques were used mainly to reduce uncertainty and hedge currency risk. But before long it became clear that derivative swaps could be used to bamboozle tax authorities and shareholders. Financial engineering could convert one type of income stream into another, or an asset into income or the other way round-reducing or avoiding tax.” – Robin Blackburn, “The Subprime Crisis”

On the road again

“In order to grasp today’s capitalism we need financial analysis, but the phenomenon of financialization sucks oxygen from the atmosphere. It privatizes information that should be public, just as it commercializes everyday life and promotes a pattern of ‘uncreative destruction’ in which enterprises and work teams are continually broken up and re-assembled to take advantage of transient arbitrage gains. In addition to helping financial institutions game their own customers, the techniques of financialization allow big capital—large corporations and wealthy individuals—to escape tax and skim the holdings of small shareholders. Note that most pension funds and charitable endowments, but not US mutual funds, are limited by fiduciary rules from much exposure to hedge funds or exotic derivatives. A further corollary of proliferating financialization is that the regulations governing credit creation were first loosened and then almost entirely ignored. Reckless credit expansion has long been the primrose path to financial crisis and collapse.” – Robin Blackburn, “The Subprime Crisis”

Iceberg fields and shoal waters

“A well-regulated stock exchange is a phenomenal source of information for all market participants. It generates second-by-second data concerning the volume and price of trades, and its settlement system registers the identity of buyers and sellers. The analytic feats of the financial economists were themselves based on such data. Yet the advent of structured finance generated a gigantic volume of direct trades between institutions whose details were only known to the participants. These ‘over-the-counter’ transactions exceeded stock- exchange transactions by the turn of the millennium, and led the exchanges to skimp on procedure in order to remain competitive. Here we have both the cause of the credit crunch and the ultimate irony of the Western crusade to marketize the globe. A great wave of securitization aimed to turn even the most unpromising cash prospect, or intimate personal ambition, into a tradeable. It succeeded in submerging the world’s main capital markets in a deluge of non-performing and unpriced securities. The fog of grey capital descended on the financial districts, shrouding the great banks and clouding the view of investors and regulators alike.” – Robin Blackburn, “The Subprime Crisis”

A point from which to move the world

“Resort to ‘leverage’ in the financialized world supposedly enables individuals and corporations to get rid of ‘unrewarded risk’ and maximize outcomes. While the word ‘debt’ has a negative ring to it, the word ‘leverage’ is positive; indeed it is now often used as a verb, as we leverage our assets in order to reach for the stars. Forgetting that Archimedes’ lever had a purchase point, the financial engineers aspire to move the world without securing the land on which they stand. In their philosophy, all that is fixed melts into air. This gives them some insight into capitalist motion but no sense of its limits. In contemporary capitalist conditions, especially a grey capitalism riddled with defective links between principals and agents, financialization becomes hugely destructive.” – Robin Blackburn, “The Subprime Crisis”

The god we worship

“The subprime debacle and its sequels train a spotlight on financialization. When properly embedded in structures of social control, finance can help to allocate capital, facilitate investment and smooth demand. But if it is unaccountable and unregulated it becomes sovereign in the re-allocation process, and can grab the lion’s share of the gains it makes possible, including anticipated gains before they have been realized. The problem is aggravated as financial intermediaries proliferate and take advantage of asymmetries in access to information and power imbalances. Such distortions multiply as ‘financialization’ takes hold. It is boosted as the logic of finance becomes ubiquitous, feeding on a commodification of every aspect of life and the life-course—student loans, baby bonds, mortgages, home equity release, credit-card debt; health insurance, individualized pension funds. Financialization also encourages corporations to privilege financial functions and to see themselves as chance collections of assets which, as circumstances change, must be continually broken up and reconfigured. While the individual is encouraged to think of him or herself as a two-legged cost and profit centre, the corporation is simply an accidental assemblage to be continually shuffled in response to fleeting market signals.” – Robin Blackburn, “The Subprime Crisis”